Succeeding In Places for Which Your Past Hasn’t Prepared You

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First-generation college students—undergraduates whose parents did not attend university—have reason to be proud. They’ve made it, against daunting odds. But once they get on campus, many of these individuals struggle.

First-generation students “are more likely to encounter academic, financial, professional, cultural and emotional difficulties than are students whose parents attended college,” writes Teresa Heinz Housel, an associate professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, who studies this population (and was herself the first in her family to attend college). More than a quarter of low-income first-generation college students leave after their first year, and 89 percent fail to graduate within six years.

The number of these students is growing—nearly one in three entering freshmen in the U.S. is a first-generation student—and so is interest in helping them succeed. The practices researchers have identified can be useful for all of us embarking on endeavors for which our background and experience have not prepared us.

First: Know what you don’t know. First-generation students are often not prepared for university-level work — but they believe otherwise, reports Karen Boden, a researcher at Azusa Pacific University in California. Her study of first-generation Latino students, published in the Journal of Hispanic Higher Education in 2011, found that the participants perceived themselves as academically prepared, even though they frequently lack the skills and knowledge of the offspring of college-educated parents.

Second: Figure out the unwritten rules. First-generation college students don’t simply lack the learning of their more privileged peers. They also arrive on campus without skills that other students take for granted, like knowing how to take notes and how to participate in class. Housel, coauthor of the report Faculty and First-Generation College Students: Bridging the Classroom Gap, notes that she, like many newcomers to university life, had to learn about “what conversational topics were appropriate for dinners with professors, how to make an airline reservation, what outfits were appropriate for professional interviews,” and other crucial but unaccustomed aspects of collegiate culture.

Third: Make connections. First-generation students feel less support, both emotional and informational, from their parents than do continuing-generation students, reports Susan Sy, a professor of psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and her coauthors in a recent study published in the Journal of College Student Retention. In these cases, research shows that social connections, whether it’s a mentor who’s a professor in the student’s area of interest or a study group of students with similar backgrounds, are essential to academic success.

Fourth: Embrace a new identity while preserving the old one. First-generation college students are often less involved in extracurricular activities than other students. They may be more likely to work outside jobs and to commute rather than live on campus, but they also may feel isolated or alienated by an unfamiliar university environment. Building bridges between home and school, old friends and new ones, is key to ensuring that the first generation to arrive at college departs there with diploma in hand.

Brilliant readers, were you the first in your family to go to college? If so, what was the experience like for you? Please share your thoughts below.

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15 Responses to “Succeeding In Places for Which Your Past Hasn’t Prepared You”

  1. J. E. Sigler says:

    I was a first-gen college student, and it wasn’t until I graduated, had my first job, saw that career flop, and then went back to grad school—10 years later—that I realized all the problems I’d had in undergrad because I was a first-gen college student. And even then, I had to meet another person who was herself a first-gen college grad to see the issues.

    Basically, what I realized was that most of my problems were related to “class culture”. I knew how to take notes and study and write and whatnot. What I did not know how to do was interact with middle-class people. Their interaction styles seemed incredibly foreign, distant, and suspicious to me. They “promoted themselves”, which translates in Appalachian to “bragged arrogantly”. They were “diplomatic”, which translated to “full of s*#@” and “two-faced”. I could never figure out what anybody really thought, because they never said anything the way they thought it.

    In the 10 years after graduation, I moved in mostly middle-class circles—now being a college grad myself. It was only upon going back to school that I could see what the problem had been.

    So, yeah, I can see the issue with poor preparation. But the cultural issue is just as bad. And while you can teach students to take notes, study, and whatnot, it is much harder to get them to abandon their identities for the sake of “moving up”. I had deep, internal struggles over the morality of doing things that, to me, given where I came from, seemed patently arrogant and dishonest. But if I was going to fit in and succeed…

    I guess this is why it’s called “selling out”.

  2. As I read the message about first generation students, I didn’t think I fit, but then it dawned on me how much the description fit me.

    When I started at the University I really did think I was ready, I even got an A in my first class, but the repast of my freshman year was horrible. I almost flunked out! Fortunately I found some friends from the same high school as myself, and they took good grades very seriously! I didn’t know how to study, take notes, take tests – I was unprepared! Thanks to those friends and a great deal of hard work I received all A’s the next spring. I was fortunate enough to graduate with distinction and went on for an MBA. But it could have turned out another way, I watched as so many classmates just gave up and quit!

    I was very fortunate to find my friends and other people who valued that education and I will always be thankful! This is very important too – I know that in order to succeed I need to realize I may not be prepared and will strive to be so, and will remember past lessons!

  3. L.C. says:

    I was the first in my family to attend and graduate from a four-year university. Despite the challenges of being away from home, not having a car, and a paltry financial aid package–I was able to thrive in school.

    I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree just three years after finishing high school. My success was not the result of a community effort, but my own intense drive to succeed. Even when I was unhappy, class was never optional. I turned in papers to the best of my ability, even while working part-time jobs–that was part of my college experience. I encourage first-generation students to avoid negative temptations and distractions of any kind. Focus on academics, the rest will fall into place later.

  4. Ayako Ezaki says:

    I was not a first-generation student, and I did not have the chance to really get to know someone who was one, but I experienced something similar in a foreign language school in Germany.

    I moved to Germany a couple of years ago, and took a 3-month “integration” course to learn the language which is part of the visa requirements. Many of my classmates were mothers who have immigrated to Germany due to their family/work reasons, and many simply had limited experience studying in a classroom setting (as mentioned in the article, “how to take notes and how to participate in class” etc.).

    Although my language skills in terms of speaking, listening, etc. abilities were not different from others’ (I only started learning the language after moving here), I realized that I had a huge advantage when it came to homework assignments and tests, because I’m used to these types of school work. I don’t necessarily think that being able to perform well in a standardized test with multiple choice questions is a practical advantage, but my language class experience made me realize there’s a lot of “unwritten rules” (and shortcuts, tricks) that I learned from many years of classroom learning that I’ve taken for granted, and that some of them may actually have helped make it easier for me to learn by making the learning process more efficient.

  5. Mark says:

    As a senior in high school, I didn’t even bother taking the SATs. College seemed like a huge waste of time. So, it’s a little ironic that I’ve been teaching college graduate psychology students to do award-winning research for the last 20 years. But it makes great sense that my interests have moved me toward social neuroscience research in those same 20 years. It wasn’t ME that wasn’t a good match for learning and college – it was my brain.

    Here’s a succinct point about the Stone and Keen Feedback book – without training, the brain/body respond to most evaluation as threat and mount stress responses. All I have to do is think of all those tests and grades in elementary and secondary school and I can feel the adrenaline and cortisol mount their protective response. Not neurobiologically optimal for loving learning.

  6. Never thought of this before. I was 1st generation to go to university. My father (a tinsmith) made it to grade 6, my mother (a secretary) made it through high school. My son has an honours degree and my daughter has two degrees. I watch with great interest how my 5 grandsons will do.

    I was certainly unprepared for university. I wasn’t a high achiever in high school – but looking back I probably managed to graduate courtesy of a pretty good memory. In later work life, people accused me of having a photographic memory – but I merely had a good one.

    I bombed out of my first year university (engineering) quite badly. I attribute this to my having no study or research skills at all. Never occurred to me up to this time for the need to “study”, or take notes, or even read a text book. How I could have graduated from high school without acquiring these skills is a bit of a mystery.

    After the shock of failing so badly, I transferred over to science. It was a little less hectic, and a lot less work load. With this “extra” time, I taught myself how to make notes, research and study. At the end of the year I was obtaining honours level marks – even in English.

    During my first science year, the Physics department had a problem – their honours Physics enrollment had dwindled to zero. The university decided to revamp the entire curriculum, merge Physics, Math Physics and Engineering Physics into a single 4 year program. I qualified, entered the honours course and with the single exception of Solid Analytical Geometry, which I could never figure out – did very well and graduated in Honours Physics. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a single job in Canada in Physics, so spent most of my work life in Information Technology – although with a passion for Science and physics to this day.

    So – certainly the points raised are true. Even today I think I missed a lot of opportunities to be more immersed in University life. I never chatted with my professors (still had a high school attitude here). I never sought out activities with those in other disciplines. Part of the problem I think was I started school at age 4, remaining a year behind classmates up until I failed that first year of University. It was amazing how much difference a year makes in the maturity of the brain.

  7. Colleen H says:

    These findings fit me almost to a tee when I entered college 40 years ago. Although I was prepared academically, I did not know the unwritten rules, nor common college vernacular. I had no idea what “rush weekend” meant and couldn’t imagine why students felt the need to be affiliated in such a way. Also, I, too, and no informational support from my family and emotional support often turned negative as my mother felt I was rejecting my family as my personal growth increased. Today, I am working on my doctorate and she still never asks me about it — after four years. I think the only thing that saved me that first year as an undergrad was the fact that, as an introvert, I rarely let externalities pierce the core of the real me.

  8. Courtney Ostaff says:

    My husband, at 40, is a first-generation college student. I second the notion that culture is far more important than study skills. As a former teacher of almost exclusively first-generation college students, I know that the formalized culture of college is off-putting to many of them. I had to explain why we called our professors “professor”, and why some were addressed as Dr. So-And-So, and others were not, as well as why they needed to contact me.

  9. Wen-Shyong Tzou says:

    Here in Taiwan the situation is totally different.
    1. Most of the senior high school students can be admitted to the university. A lot proportion of them are not prepared intellectually.
    2. There is very few TA for the students in University. Although teachers are willing to help, teachers are drowned by high loading of teaching hours and the pressure of publishing research papers. Teachers just do not have much time in “tutoring”.
    3. Students from senior high school did not know and develop their own interest and ruin their appetites of knowledge resulting from the “cram-school”-like teaching and studying in senior high school.
    4. One FAQ of the university students: Why should I learn calculus and physics if I am a biologist ?
    5. University life is an “emancipation” out of the chains and schackles of high-pressure senior high school life. University students start to enjoy their social life, not the academic life.

  10. Kathleen Connell says:

    Yes I was a first generation Uni student. The Uni I went to was also new. It was exciting, better than the stuffy all girls private school I’d attended- but that was the reasoning my parents used- they hoped for and wanted myself and sister to go to Uni, and the school would inculcate it. (Depression survivors my parents hadn’t been able to extend their learning). I’m up to my third degree so it must have had an impact. Many of the Uni cohort were first generation kids of immigrants and that added another interesting aspect. Both my husband and I have had the first in our generation Uni experience and now very much understand it’s benefits and hope our children will get there to (one is and seems to be having a great time- doesn’t work as hard as we thought we had!). Some Uni ‘s in Australia target kids from schools who may not, due to background, financial, distance and results limitations, enter Uni. It’s a great scheme and provided the students are given support can reap great results. Living on campus is uncommon in Australia, and so some of the hot housing of colleges is avoided. Kids can go home for respite. Activities are there, but paid jobs are also a distraction. As the knowledge economy takes hold Uni will become very sought after by all society segments- great.

  11. I’m probably a 4th generation college student based on some lines. My mom currently works in the records office of a university and did when I was growing up and my dad teaches at the school as well. To a large extent, university culture is *my* culture.

    However, I teach at a school where many students are the first generation college students. Our school has a class that all students must take which orients students to college. I don’t teach that class, but I often teach the basic writing class that the large majority of students take simultaneously.

    Getting out of the university culture and spending time with people of different classes and cultures has helped me immensely in learning to teach at my school and help the newbies, basically making friends with folks of all types.

    All the suggestions in the article are useful and worthwhile for me. Thanks everybody for your comments as well, especially yours, William. Your specific areas of disconnect are very clear and would be totally worthwhile discussing with my “Fundamentals of Communication” students.

  12. Hi Annie,

    Thank you for sharing this with us. Much of this resonated with me — I was in fact a first-generation college student (and I attended an Ivy League University, which I think added some additional pressures)… but that could be a full book.

    It would be great (perhaps in your next blog) to discuss what strategies have been most effective in supporting first generation college students. One thing that helped me tremendously (beyond my high school preparation) was the skill of question formulation and being able to use questions to help me navigate through systems and acquire “social capital” and “cultural capital” etc. I interned at an organization called the Right Question Project (then, now it’s the Right Question Institute) and the skills I practiced there helped me throughout my college journey.

    Again, thank you, and I really would love to see a discussion of what works well.

  13. Lauren says:

    Looking at the studies that are mentioned here, there are some confounding factors – each mentions (in addition to first generation college students) 1) ethnicity, and 2) income. I’m interested in seeing studies that tease apart these issues.

    As the first and only person in my family (and extended family) to attend college, graduate, and go on to get two master’s degree, I definitely found myself removed from the “college” experience, but I also worked full-time off-campus throughout most of my education. I didn’t struggle until I was in a PhD program, and the effort and time required of the program played a larger role than my inability to comprehend and synthesize the content of the field.

  14. Annie Vallet says:

    I was definitely a first gen college student…but as an older student I had life experience to help me, and intrinsic motivation. I grew up so very poor right here in America that even my scholarship to Nicholl’s State in Louisiana meant I couldn’t go. I didn’t have the money nor a way to help my family. So I went to work. Later when my son when to Kindergarten, I enrolled in the local college, Nortwestern State University, Natchitoches, La. Four years later, I graduated as the top graduate of 668 students. Then I did it again, after becoming a teacher in Huntsville, Texas, at SHSU, this time for my master’s via a program called TecBEATT (Technology for Bilingual Educator’s as Trainers of Teachers). Do I regret the roundabout path? No. Why? Life Experience. I’m still a lifelong learner. Intrinsic Motivation is key. How did I start learning? The only thing we could afford, public libraries, which I still support, with everything in me. Have a wonderful day learning.

  15. Mary Taylor says:

    Whether studying or life-long learning it is all about our personal development. Getting ready for a career or being able to excel own strengths. I am happy about this discussion and would like to encourage you to keep up the good work.

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